As the season winds to a close I will be reviewing the teams that can legitimately challenge for the title. I will focus on 9 teams, 5 from the West and 4 from the East, and will break down what makes them dangerous, what can be used against them, and how far they can be expected to go. This edition features the 3-seed out West, the Denver Nuggets.
Ahh, what might have been. Another squad that started slow, the Nuggets run and gun attack was barely over .500 at the close of 2012, but has since gone a blistering 40-10 and has at times looked every bit the contender. Unfortunately injuries have begun to take their toll, and Denver will be without at least one key contributor, and a couple of others may not be at full strength.
Danilo Gallinari’s injury removes from the lineup the threat of a shooter (even if the percentages are unimpressive) to help open up the floor and a semi-reliable shot creator for those end of clock situations when the ball just needs to get launched in the general direction of the basket. If there’s any consolation, it’s that the Nuggets have absolutely no intention of finding out what happens at the end of the clock.
Denver operates at the second quickest pace in the league and more than any other team they rely on their defense to solve all of those pesky spacing issues. The defense only rates in the middle of the pack, but there is a method to it all. The perimeter players actively troll the passing lanes looking for steal opportunities to jump-start a fast break, usually with one of their myriad wings bolting down the floor. Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler, and Andre Iguodala all like to get out and run off of these opportunities, and each of the three is capable of both starting and finishing a fast break.
The two-headed point guard monster of Ty Lawson and Andre Miller drive these breaks, either off of a steal, a rebound grabbed by the surprisingly effective Kosta Koufos or another big, or even off a made basket. Lawson and Kenneth Faried have missed time lately, and their effectiveness returning from injury will be a big determining factor in how far this team can go in the playoffs.
One big benefit of having these guys return now is that other players, notably Evan Fournier, have been able to establish themselves as useful rotation pieces that can be slotted in if need be in the playoffs. Fournier has played the role of backup point guard in the absence of Lawson, but he has the size to play the wing, and he may be needed there more in the postseason because of coach George Karl’s fondness for lineups featuring one point guard, one big, and three speedy wings.
While the relentless attacking of the wings and point guards is the lifeblood of the offense, Koufos has proven to be very effective playing the role of defensive safety net and rebounder to start breaks. With the wings looking to leak out early, he is often the difference between a crisp fast break and an easy basket for the opposing team.
The other big key to the defense is the perennially strong Iguodala, who is the glue for everything the team does. Along with the previously mentioned fast break skill, his strong passing helps the team stay competitive in the half court and takes some of the pressure off of others to create clean looks. He is also a crafty cutter and solid finisher. And that defense – he doesn’t have all of the athleticism from his Philly days, but Iggy can still track an opponent on the perimeter at a very high level, which is one of the things allowing the other wings on the team to take risks on starting a break.
Drawing Golden State in the first round is about the best anyone in the West can hope for, but they still offer challenges for Denver. Stephen Curry set the record for made threes in a season in game 82, and it’s likely he’ll be breaking his own record again in the future. His ability to stretch the floor and David Lee’s toughness on offense are both difficult to deal with, but ultimately Denver can ride their home-court advantage to a relatively easy series win unless multiple injuries catch up to them.
The second round is likely to feature the Spurs, barring an internet-breaking Lakers upset in round one. San Antonio has their fair share of injuries to deal with that could make this a very interesting series. If Tony Parker can’t be the same guy who drove the offense through most of the regular season, or if something happens to Tim Duncan in increased minutes, the Nuggets could easily run straight into the Western finals. Equally likely is that Parker comes back healthy, Duncan looks like it’s 2002 like he has all year, Manu Ginobili is able to give them something and this thing is over in five.
A conference finals appearance likely means a date with the OKC Thunder. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are looking very, very good these days, but no one played them tougher than the Nuggets in the regular season (Denver won the season series 3-1). Losing Gallinari is a big blow to their upset chances, but Denver matches up fairly well, what with them being able to throw Iguodala at Durant, and their breakneck pace can wear the Thunder down. A meeting between these two teams would make for a spectacular series, and one that Denver would stand a chance of winning for a chance to play for the title.